Interview with one of the digital audio industry leaders Antelope Audio designer Igor Levin. This is part one of the interview.
Where and how did it all start for Antelope Audio?
The real beginning was 25 years ago, not with Antelope but another animal - Aardvak. This was my first company back in the U.S. There, I started with a two-channel S/PDIF card for PC. The plan was to make a separate A/D and D/A converter so that the user can record and then get the sound out of the computer. This required a clock that has to clock the converters. At that time a clock was not something that you just go out and buy, that's why I had to design my own clock. I started selling the converters. People liked them, but what they really liked was the clock. It turned out that the clock I built for my converters became more popular than the converters themselves. This is how we became a hit clocking company. AardSync was our first clock, which is still in use by some studios in New York and L.A.
Later on in 2005 I founded Antelope Audio. The idea was to design better master clocks. With the progress of technologies I was aware that I had to improve what I had done with AardSync and had to go to a more stable time base. This is how I introduced Antelope's Isochrone line (Iso – same; chronos – time, derived from the Greek).
It was in 2008 – 2009 when we recognized the market’s demand for high quality D/A conversion. This is why we decided to implement our know-how into building our first 192 kHz USB DAC – Zodiac+.
Lately you have turned to the audiophile oriented market. Would you consider Antelope an audiophile oriented company?
I wouldn’t say we are either an audiophile or pro audio oriented company. We clearly have serious background in professional audio industry but now we are providing consumers with high quality audio devices, utilizing the innovations we had developed for the pro guys. We are equally dedicated to both our consumer and professional customers since we see a good synergy especially in the R&D of the digital technologies.
Kindly list all current products from Antelope.
We have a product line of audio master clocks and reference generators – the Isochrone line. It is pro audio oriented, although we have high end consumer electronics customers purchasing our Trinity clock and 10M atomic clock. And I’m not surprised since this combo provides extremely stable clocking reference used for the scoring of a number of blockbusters such as Avatar and Batman. It could perfectly fit any digital set up.
Another professional device is our AD/DA mastering converter Eclipse 384, which also already found its place in some audiophile set ups, thanks to the capability of digitizing analog (vinyl) recordings and storing them in 384 kHz audio files.
The audiophile stuff is represented by the Integrity line. These are the 192 kHz USB DACs Zodiac and Zodiac+, and the 384 kHz DAC Zodiac Gold. This line consists also of a separate audiophile-grade power supply Voltikus which operates with all three models.
The icing on the cake is the device that we presented at the Munich High End Show. Rubicon is the world’s first Atomic AD/DA Preamp. It is a 384 kHz converter, phono stage preamp and headphone amplifier with an integrated Rubidium atomic clock.
What would you say, that Antelope audio is doing differently - specifically compared to other DAC’S.
The first and the most distinguishing is the accurate clocking. The high-accuracy clocking is the key to avoiding loss of details and poor stereo imaging. An accurate clock creates better timing reference by providing more stable pulses, which determine the exact placement of each sample. Antelope's Acoustically Focused Clocking and Oven Controlled Clock technologies ensure unprecedented stability of the clock, precise jitter management and finest sound quality.
Another differentiator is the custom USB chip. Since we are one of the few that have the hardware capability to use synch mode we utilize it instead of the async in our DACs. This is why we offer users a plug and play custom USB interface with native drivers, requiring no additional software installation both for Mac and PC. The benefits are 384 kHz streaming, excellent jitter performance and smooth user experience without additional drivers. We were among the pioneers and still among the few companies that support up to 384 kHz USB streaming, which I believe is the future of digital audio.
What is your approach to power supply and how important is it in your opinion?
Power supply is another important issue when it comes to conversion. This is why we are paying special attention to it and that is why we created the separate dedicated power supply unit Voltikus.
What is ‘transparency’ in the eyes of Antelope Audio?
My philosophy is that the converters should be transparent. Any sound shaping should be done by dedicated devices (equalizers, compressors, tape simulators, tubes, transformers) that are designed for the purpose and have a great degree of adjustability and control. To have a 'colored' converter is like having a camera with a pink-colored lens. You do not always want all your pictures pink, do you?
What is the difference between your pro and audiophile products?
We do not apply any differentiators when we are designing pro or audiophile product. Actually there are more similarities than differences. The only thing that leads us is responding to customers’ demands and providing them with one and the same high quality high-end technologies. The other important point that is worth mentioning is that in both markets we are not following but setting the trends. We are developing products that are more or less industry benchmarks rather than just another product in the rack.
Where is the end in regards to sampling frequency and bits? What about 32-bits?
The 24 bits have not been achieved yet. In spite of a wave of 32 bit converters - which employ marketing rather than audio bits – the performance of state of the art converters is currently about 21-22 bits. Personally I don't think more bits matter anymore. But higher sample rates ARE important. And the issue there is not that you can convert up to 200 kHz (that only your dog can hear), but the fact that many software plug-ins work a lot better at higher sampling rates. This is especially true of compressors and various saturation simulators which benefit from oversampling. Arguments can be made that DACs also do a better job converting heavily oversampled audio by eliminating some upsampling steps.
Do you produce everything in house or do you employ subcontractors?
All Antelope Audio products are assembled in house and go through rigorous quality assurance. Of course some of the components are sourced from various suppliers, which we select very carefully. We follow very strict procedures when choosing our suppliers. This is the only way to be sure that all the components coming from Germany, Switzerland, Japan, China etc. are of the highest quality standards.
What made you move into the audiophile market?
First of all, it was the noticeable demand for high quality converters and the desire to provide the end customers with technologies previously available only to the best sound engineers. It is really exciting to give people the opportunity to experience sound quality available only in the finest recording and mastering studios.
Besides this, it is a real challenge to penetrate such a large and at the same time kind of closed market, which is not welcoming to newcomers.
How would you define Antelope Audio’s sound/ approach?
My personal philosophy is that it is absolutely crucial to use some of those so called “coloring” technologies in order to achieve optimum artistic result with the audio. This is in fact what sound recording, mastering and post production are doing. But in order to be able to skillfully apply the “coloring” we need a technology that guarantees a complete, non-distorted and accurate reproduction. This is what Antelope Audio is doing – developing technology that provides as clear and non- colored sound as possible. My philosophy is that everything should stand on a clock that gives a very nice reproduction that is not colored artificially and does not have a digital sound to it. Then and only then we are able to manipulate the audio in a way that best suites our listening preferences.
What is the secret of Antelope Audio’s strong market impact in high end audio world?
Converter design is as much art as science. Much like cooking. The secret is not just to have good ingredients but to be skilled in the art of combining them, taking into account how they interact and to have a sense of balance. This is something a good designer learns to live with as his skills grow. And, at the end of the day that is what makes audio design Art.
We hear many theories on the importance of the master clock. Can you tell us more about your view?
The importance of the precise master clock is not just a theory. It is proven by the everyday live applications in thousands of recording, mastering and postproduction studios around the world. A great number of sound engineers trust master clocks to synchronize their devices. And the more precise the clock is the better the sound quality is.
The same rules that apply for the digital studio devices are equally valid for the home environment. The effect that accurate, stable clocking has on a digital audio system can be difficult to grasp without experiencing it first-hand. An accurate clock can make an average converter sound much better than poorly clocked high-end gear.
Morten from 2L uses your converter for their mastering. So from Hollywood you’re moving into mastering houses…
Morten is a great guy and he is doing a really great job with his recordings. I believe that hi-res audio is the future of pure sound and I’m happy that together with Morten we are able to work in this direction and make it happen.
Rubicon. How did this product evolve and happen?
After developing a very high-end pro audio device that incorporates our best technologies such as the Eclipse 384, it was a fair step to do the same for the high-end consumer enthusiasts. With the Rubicon we went even further by integrating a 10 MHz Rubidium atomic clock.
Can you tell us more about atomic clock?
The atomic clock is actually a rubidium core which is 100,000 times more stable than the traditional crystal oscillator. The stability of the atomic is 1 second in 1,000 years. This is a technology developed for accurate time keeping in space telecommunication systems, Sat Nav and GPS. Now it enters the home environment with the world’s first Atomic AD/DA Preamp, providing listeners with exclusive sound clarity and unprecedented soundstage, removing the boundary between analog and digital audio.
What is so special about Rubicon?
Rubicon is the first AD/DA with an Atomic clock, which makes it the most accurate converter ever built. The A/D conversion implemented in it clearly shows that it is not a device targeting only the digital audio lovers. On the contrary, it is a device that can perfectly suit the needs of the vinyl aficionados. With the transformer-based, ultra-low noise, discrete JFET phono preamp and the 384 kHz recording function, Rubicon becomes the ultimate device for digitizing analog audio content.
Rubicon’s design resembles pure art deco. Where did the inspiration came from?
This is a question which should go to our art director. As far as I know he is highly inspired by car design. This is where he borrowed ideas for the Rubicon.
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